During February testimony before Minnesota legislators, several Metro Transit operators told Minnesota lawmakers that they often fear for their lives while on the job. Assaults, harassment and other criminal activity occur in and around the buses and light rail, and many drivers are out in the open and vulnerable.
And this month, some Twin Cities transit operators say those problems continue even as they have fewer passengers during the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re right to seek better communication from the agency about incidents throughout their system, as well as their versions of PPE (personal protective equipment) on their buses.
As reported in a Star Tribune news story, in the first three months of this year Metro Transit bus drivers and light-rail operators were assaulted 42 times. Nearly 200 attacks have occurred each year since 2016. And now the drivers are concerned about an additional safety threat that argues for protective barriers — possible COVID-19 infection from passengers.
In response to the safety problems, the Metropolitan Council approved a $1.23 million contract to install driver enclosures in about two-thirds of the system’s 900 buses. To their credit so far, Metro Transit has outfitted 152 buses with plexiglass barriers, and 472 are on order and will be installed at a rate of about eight per week, according to a transit spokesperson. Older buses are expected to be replaced with new ones that are already outfitted with enclosures.
Still, the agency should consider expediting that schedule to offer protections from the rapidly spreading virus. Just consider that in 2019, the agency reported, there were 46 spitting incidents reported against drivers, a 15% increase over 2018.
Metro Transit has taken additional steps to protect its operators and passengers during the pandemic. Officials wisely reduced hours of operation, closed indoor waiting areas, started regularly disinfecting vehicles and busy boarding areas, limited the number of people who can ride on a bus or train, and encouraged riders to board and exit buses using rear doors.
The transit agency is asking passengers to take buses or trains only for essential travel. And when they must board buses or trains, they’re asked to leave space between themselves and other passengers and the operator, wear a face covering, cough or sneeze into a tissue or sleeve, and regularly wash or sanitize their hands.
The metro-area transit system is a major regional and state asset and public investment, and the light-rail system is about to be expanded to the southwest suburbs with additional taxpayer support. That investment could be threatened if safety issues persist. Ridership could decline — even more than during the current COVID-19 crisis — and it could become more difficult to recruit operators to what’s perceived as a dangerous job.
Federal legislation that would require transit agencies to install barriers to protect bus drivers and better track assaults nationally is pending in Congress. But Metro Transit is on track to do so even without a federal mandate.
The agency should build on current safety measures by stepping up operator-enclosure installations and improving staff communication about incidents. Drivers must be protected from assault, harassment and infection — for their own safety, and for the safety of their passengers.